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Supreme Court orders new voter maps in Alabama

FILE- Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Patrick Semansky/AP
FILE- Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The Supreme Court has issued a surprising ruling in favor of Black voters in a congressional redistricting case, ordering the creation of a second district with a large Black population. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined with the court's liberals in affirming a lower-court ruling that found a likely violation of the Voting Rights Act in an Alabama congressional map. The map had one majority Black seat out of seven congressional districts in a state where more than one in four residents is Black. The case had been closely watched for its potential to weaken the landmark voting rights law.

Prior to today’s decision, there was anticipation how the nation’s highest court might rule in the new case, which threatened to make it much more difficult for minority groups to sue over gerrymandered political maps that dilute their representation.

“At that point, you have to ask yourself what’s left of the Voting Rights Act?” said Franita Tolson, a constitutional and election law expert and co-dean of the University of Southern California School of Law.

Core parts of the Voting Rights Act have been reauthorized with bipartisan support five times since it was signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson, the most recent in 2006. But congressional efforts to address the enforcement gap created by the June 2013 Supreme Court decision on what was known as preclearance — federal review of proposed election-related changes before they could take effect — have languished amid increasingly partisan battles over the ballot box.

The AP previously reported the recent wave of voting changes had been pushed by Republican lawmakers who pointed to concerns over elections that had been fueled by former President Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

At least 104 restrictive voting laws have passed in 33 mostly GOP-controlled states since the 2020 election, according to an analysis by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting legislation in the states.

Back in May, the AP reported how Alabama, where two of the major challenges to the Voting Rights Act began, considered legislation this year that would have made it a crime to help a non-family member fill out or return an absentee ballot. Supporters argued the change was needed to boost security, though ultimately the bill failed to pass as the state's legislature adjourned Tuesday without taking a final vote on it.

Critics said the proposal would have made it difficult for voters who are older, low-income, ill or who do not feel comfortable with the already cumbersome absentee ballot process, which includes a requirement to submit a copy of a photo ID.

Betty Shinn, a 72-year-old Black woman from Mobile testified against the bill, saying it was a vehicle for suppressing votes: "It's no different from asking me how many jellybeans are in that jar or asking me to recite the Constitution from memory.”

It was such Jim Crow-era rules that the Voting Rights Act was designed to stop, relying on a formula to identify states, counties and towns with a history of imposing voting restrictions and with low voter registration or participation rates. They then were required to submit any proposed voting changes in advance, either to the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington, D.C.

The law included ways for jurisdictions to exit the preclearance requirement after demonstrating specific improvements, and dozens had over the years. At the time of the 2013 decision, nine states and a few dozen counties and towns in six other states were on the list for federal review. That included a small number of counties in California and New York.

In the decade since the Supreme Court decision, which came in a case filed by Shelby County, Alabama, lawmakers in the nine states formerly covered by the preclearance requirement have passed at least 77 voting-related laws, according to an analysis by the Voting Rights Lab for The Associated Press.

Most improved voter access and likely would have sailed through federal review. But at least 14 laws – in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – added new voting restrictions, the Voting Rights Lab found. These include nine, high-profile bills passed in the aftermath of the 2020 election that would have almost certainly drawn significant scrutiny from the Justice Department.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
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